The second week of September was a busy one for the Virginia Attorney General’s Capital Litigation section, for the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center—attorneys who represent Virginians sentenced to death in federal habeas proceedings—and for students in “Death is Different,” Jackson Sasser’s capstone seminar on the death penalty: All three groups prepared for two different capital appeals before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Richmond. When argument in Thomas Porter’s appeal was postponed, the attorneys and students focused on Anthony Juniper’s case, which was argued before three Fourth Circuit judges on Friday, 15 September.
Students read the written filings in the Juniper case, “mooted” its argument during the seminar’s regular Monday evening session, and attended the Fourth Circuit panel, where Matthew Dullaghan and Dawn Davison represented the Commonwealth and Mr. Juniper, respectively. After the argument both sides met the students to review the argument and to discuss their work broadly considered. “This was especially cool considering we mooted the case only four days before,” said senior Chloe Madvig. “We learned how they prepared for the argument, what questions they expected, and even cooler—they asked us what we would have done differently.”
Alice T. Armstrong, Senior Assistant Attorney General charged with leading the Commonwealth’s actual innocence and capital litigation, was kind to make her fourth appearance before “Death is Different” seminars. The Resource Center’s director, Rob Lee, joined Davison and their colleague Elizabeth Peiffer in visiting with students. Peiffer, a 2005 graduate of William & Mary Law School, also spoke to students in Sasser’s American Legal Process course and met with members of the Williamsburg community earlier this year.
“Our students are often rightly concerned that the public is ill-informed about, or flat uninterested in, ongoing death penalty regimes in the Commonwealth and beyond,” said Sasser, who has taught law- and court-related courses in the Government Department since 2009. “Professor Nemacheck and I are fortunate to have friends willing to share their work, and students keen to make the most of those exchanges.” Associate Professor Christine Nemacheck also teaches the government department’s law and courts classes, including a 2018 Spring Break seminar on The Law and Politics of Capital Punishment.
Porter and Juniper are two among four men currently on Virginia’s death row; the Commonwealth executed Ricky Gray in January and William Morva in July. In April Governor McAuliffe commuted Ivan Teleguz’s death sentence to life in prison. All three were represented by the VCRRC.
Davison and her colleagues contend that prosecutors withheld potentially exculpatory eyewitness testimony that should have been shared with Mr. Juniper’s defense counsel under Brady v. Maryland, a landmark 1963 Supreme Court opinion. The Fourth Circuit panel’s opinion, which Madvig said the seminar “eagerly awaits,” should be released in weeks to come. “Watching Juniper’s argument in person changed the class from feeling theoretical to feeling concrete and human; the issues and Supreme Court precedents we learned will facilitate Anthony Juniper’s life or death. It was sobering and moving.”